Introductory Reading List

Below is an introductory list of articles that we at Poets Union have found useful in understanding the economic and political situation of poetry in the US today. The list is chronological based on area of focus, from most recent to oldest. We intend to post a much more detailed list soon, but we want to start with these relatively accessible, free articles for those who are new to this material.

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Ken Chen’s very recent essay in Lana Turner offers a survey of poetry in the 21st century with special attention to the economics of publishing and institutionalization, and how this era has impacted writers of color. 

Damaged Book Worker’s essay at Medium details their experiences of wage theft and abuse while working at Small Press Distribution. This is a crucial document illuminating labor conditions in the literary world, and to this date SPD has not met worker demands for justice.

“Why the Poetry Foundation Shakeup is One to Watch” offers a summary of the PoFo scandal of 2020, in which poets of color pushed back against the magazine’s tokenism, leading president Henry Bienen to resign in disgrace (among other shake ups). Also referenced are Bienen’s ties to the CIA and US State Department (and a legacy of people declaring hunger strikes against him lol).

Groundings interview with Joy James discusses Walter Rodney, Guerrilla intellectuals, publishing, and the plurality of abolitionisms. This provides powerful insight into the relationship between academia and radical politics, arguing that academics function largely to appropriate and neutralize the intellectual innovations of radicals. James models a way of operating as an academic in light of this fact, and it is a vital lesson for those poets and writers in the academy.

Mark Nowak’s “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry” provides an exceptionally well-supported analysis of the MFA industry from 2004. Situating the industry as one part of a larger “neoliberal language industry,” Nowak argues that the hegemony of the MFA will eventually sever literary producers from the very possibility of solidarity and collective action. And the strategies he offers for resisting this trend are vital.

“The Political Logic of the NPIC” by Dylan Rodriguez offers an account of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. This is crucial in helping poets understand the political and material realities of some of literature’s most influential entities. In short, “non-profit” is absolutely NOT a synonym for “good” or “exempt from capitalism.”

”The Moneyed Muse” offers a history of Poetry Foundation from 2007. It  features not only a portrait of Ruth Lilly and her pharmaceutical fortune, but also of former president John Barr, his verse in blackface, and his telling poets, “The human mind is a marketplace.” 

“The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises,” by Steve Evans, offers a look at the complicit liberalism of poetry publishing in the 90’s. With special focus on Fence, this offers a portrait of the far-reaching political compromises made within the culture of the small press during the “golden age” of the MFA (i.e. the dawn of the student debt crisis).

Eric Bennett’s “How Iowa Flattened Literature” is an essay-length distillation of his famous Workshops of Empire, showing how Engle, Stegner, et al. formed the field of creative writing with cooperation and sponsorship of the state as an arm of the Cold War. That is, creative writing was in part an anti-communist project, and inseparable from state power.

How the CIA Funded & Supported Literary Magazines Worldwide While Waging Cultural War Against Communism” discusses just what its title suggests. Special attention is paid to Joel Whitney’s book, Finks, which offers a thorough account of how the CIA infiltrated and deployed literary magazines during the Cold War. The article also notes one of the CIA’s most famous literary fronts: The Paris Review.  

“Small Magazines” by Ezra Pound is a source text in defining the project of small magazine publishing — namely, as a tool of career advancement aligned with the demands of major publishing houses and the cultivation of prestige.

“The Author as Producer,” by Walter Benjamin, is a seminal text for Poets Union. Written in 1934 for German literati, it is not the most accessible essay for a reader in 2021. However, there are many absolute gems within it, and we have written about its contemporary relevance here.

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